Current Issues in Web Technology
To round off our discussion of games, we’re going to turn to the
topic of flow.
This is a core feature of ‘good games’, but is not unique to
Flow is a positive mental state in which an individual
experiences high levels of focus, immersion and enjoyment.
Playing a piece of music
Being absorbed in a good book
Fragging some noobs
When we say we are ‘in the zone’ or ‘lost in the moment’, we
are often saying ‘we are in a state of flow’
The term was coined by the Hungarian researcher Mihaly
As a pronounciation guide – Mee Hi Chick Sent Me Hi Eee
Henceforth known as Mihaly in this lectuire since that’s so much
easier to type.
In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he
architected his basic thesis.
People are happiest and most productive when they are a state of
absorption with the situation and context in which they function.
Flow is a desirable state of being for most people.
An intrinsicly motivated state.
‘Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.
The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and
thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.
Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the
Daniel Kahneman has argued that mental effort is a depleting
resource that must be constantly renewed.
Some tasks are inherently more consumptive than others.
We have no control over this except through practise and the
development of skills.
We can lower the cost but not increase the amount of mental
effort we ‘allocate’
Some tasks are very easy, and require the expending of very
limited amounts of energy.
Kahneman has discussed this in relation to the tasks Add-1 and Add-3
Start beating a steady rhythm of one beat per second.
Remove a card from a deck
Wait for two bears and then read the four digits from the card
Report a string where each of the original digits is incremented by
2443 would become 3554
Keeping pace is important.
The same, except add 3, rolling over where necessary.
Some tasks are more complicated, and involve the tracking of many
variables and special cases:
Mental energy and attention is a finite resource, and it can be dried up
through excessive use.
For example, count in the following video how many times the players in white tshirts pass the basketball.
Only a pass counts for the total.
‘I’m burnt out’
‘I’m so frazzled’
‘I can’t think straight any more’
The human mind is a ruthless cost-benefit analyser.
And it will try to shy away from activities that cost large amounts of mental energy.
‘The law of least effort’
Kanheman and Mihaly both posit flow as a mental state that
consumes no (or trivial amounts) of mental energy.
It is a mental state which is not aversive to individuals.
Allowing a conservation of energy because there is no need to
continually wrangle the mind into obedience.
Flow separates the two key aspects of mental activity.
Concentration of attention
Deliberate control of attention
For the latter, nothing is required to focus the mind.
Freeing up our poor brains to just enjoy the task.
What Creates Flow?
Four things are required to create the circumstances under which flow
can be elicited.
If we knew how to manufacture it, it wouldn’t be so hard to make great, engaging
A system must have concrete goals with manageable rules.
Too abstract a goal with too complex a ruleset will not create flow.
Goals that match individual abilities.
Most of us would not be able to attain flow in a game of chess with Gary
Clear and timely feedback
We need to know when we’re doing well, and given the necessary tools to
incorporate feedback into improving performance.
Distractions must be eliminated.
Only the system, none of the busywork.
What Creates Flow?
Flow is only possible in the ‘sweet spot’ where a task is of
sufficient difficulty for our level of mastery.
Too hard and we can become frustrated or anxious.
Too easy and we can become disinterested or bored.
How does Flow feel?
It feels great.
We can focus on a task without expending mental energy.
We have a sense of genuine control over the outcome of our
We demonstrate great improvements in performance due to the
tight link between our actions and feedback.
We lose awareness of what’s going on around us.
Time becomes ‘elastic’.
Missing meals, appointments, showering
‘One more turn’… ‘Wait, when did it become 8am?’
Enjoyment of the task is all that is needed as a motivation to
The first prerequisite of flow is that we need concrete goals with
Our minds have limited attentional powers.
A lack of these creates uncertainty, uncertainty disrupts flow.
Kahneman talks about this is two separate categories, System-1
and System 2 (known as Dual Process Theory).
System 1 – thinking fast, automatic, low cognitive requirement
System 2 – Thinking slow, analytic, costly, slow and directed.
The cost to deal with uncertainty and a lack of direction
requires the expending of costly system 2 attention.
We start to second guess what we’re doing and why.
Goals that match individual abilities.
Goals that are too difficult are frustrating.
Goals that are too easy are boring.
We need to hit the goldilocks zone.
Stress and a failure to master a challenge subvert flow.
I just can’t do this, and it’s getting on my nerves. I’m going to go do
something else for a while.
Everyone has their own unique profile of where they get
stressed and where they get excited by the difficulty of a task.
But it’s usually a fairly standard bell curve.
Clear and Timely Feedback
If we are to evoke a sense of flow, people must be able to react
quickly to retain their sense of engagement.
Feedback should occur after the action.
To allow maximum link between action and consequence.
Too little feedback feels arbitrary.
To indicate causality.
It should occur very quickly after the action is performed.
Think of the ‘window of learning’ that you have in training a dog.
Too late feedback feels unfair.
‘I could have done better if I had just known earlier I was doing badly’
Flow induces a sense of cognitive processing that is not effortful.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be interrupted.
Our minds are very good at directing our attention to information of
which we need to be aware.
A creeping spider on the wall
The cocktail effect
We have no control over those elements outside of our system.
But we can minimise the distractions within it.
When distractions are needed, make them as cost-free as
Flow is an intrinsic reward.
Human motivation is tremendously nuanced.
It comes with no physical reward, it is a justification in and of itself.
We’re starting to come to a new understanding of why people
behave the way they do.
Daniel Pink refers to version of motivation.
Motivation 1.0 – Striving to fulfil basic needs
Motivation 2.0 – Sought compliance, extrinsic rewards.
Motivation 3.0 – Driven by engagement and autonomy.
Intrinsic rewards come from within.
You do the thing because you want to do the thing.
As university students, you are presumed that intrinsic
motivations should be enough.
Opportunities to express autonomy
The development of mastery
A desire for learning
Pleasure in accomplishment.
But we also appreciate that extrinsic rewards are important.
Rewards that accrue as the result of attaining a certain outcome.
Extrinsic motivation in many ways counteracts intrinsic
Grades, awards, degrees are all examples of extrinsic rewards.
And removing the extrinsic rewards does not repair it.
You do the thing because you want the reward.
Motivation 2.0 believes in a linear relationship between reward
If I pay you twice your salary, you will work twice as hard.
It’s not true.
Two famous studies show the impact.
Extrinsic rewards are valuable, but not if they are specifically
linked to an action.
You will get this bonus if you hit your monthly sales target.
Versus - hey, you just got this award for being a valuable employee!
Flow is a characteristic intrinsic state.
Parents and their late pickup children.
Children and gold stars for fun activities.
People will seek it for their own reasons, rather than as a result of
Compare that to the topic of gamification from last week.
What does all this mean?
Whether it is games or other systems, we want to be able to
facilitate a sense of flow in others.
And we need to design systems accordingly.
We need to provide:
Clear cues as to what should be done next.
Which disappear as a user developers mastery.
Direction and context should be given during low stress situations.
Information that clearly maps onto the desired goal.
Reactive difficulty or challenge
New concepts and tools introduced at a rate appropriate for the
More Guidelines on Flow
We also need to
Explicitly indicate why feedback is linked to activity.
And make sure that feedback occurs during the optimal learning
Where feedback must be done on a long scale, indicate how short
term accomplishments led to long term feedback.
Limit extraneous information and distractions.
This doesn’t ensure that your systems will create a sense of
But it does mean you remove most of the barriers that would
otherwise prevent it.
Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
The Concept of Flow
As small groups
Carrying on from the gamification exercise last week.
How can we incorporate opportunities for flow in the
What elements of gamification introduced last week will
frustrate or subvert out attempts to do so?
Think about flow states you have encountered in your own life.
Are there lessons there that could be incorporated?
Flow is an inherently desirable state for people to enter.
Games are tremendously effective engines for creating flow.
We can look to inspire it in many different circumstances.
There are many ways to prevent flow being achieved.
And we have a lot we can learn from them.
Flow is not a specifically game related concept.
It increases engagement and willingness to master a system.
But few ways to guarantee it.
We should do our hardest to ensure our systems are flow
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